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As Joshua Cooper
Ramo suggests in his important new book, The Seventh Sense, massively scaled,
always-on connection changes the nature of objects and institutions. A
heart-rate monitor that shares information with a million other heart-rate
monitors functions differently than one that operates in standalone fashion.
The same is true for automobiles, spare bedrooms, and the individuals who make
up a TV audience or a country. The Networked Age doesn't just amplify or
accelerate existing instances of knowledge transfer, economic exchange, and
political action. It enables entirely new possibilities
Still, the extent to which networks are reshaping our lives and most
important institutions remains surprisingly underappreciated.
Sense is Ramo's deeply considered attempt to address what's at stake in
these early days of the Networked Age, and to envision what paths we might
pursue as we move forward.
A former Time magazine senior editor who now serves as co-CEO
and vice chairman of Kissinger Associates, he understands that it's not just
code or hardware that defines our age. Instead, it's networks, the
always-shifting set of relationships that the code and hardware enable, the
near-omniscience that arises out of perpetual and pervasive feedback loops.
Knowledge is power, the old saying goes, and today, thanks to networks,
knowledge accrues and disperses and recombines at speeds and in ways that can
be liberating and unsettling.
Or as Ramo puts it with poetic succinctness: "Constant connectivity
taps like a hammer on the glass of our most comfortable institutions."
With his background in statecraft, Ramo is far more circumspect about
"disruption" or the consequences of "changing the world"
than the average Silicon Valley growth hacker. He recognizes that ISIS is as
much a product of the Networked Age as Uber or Instagram.
But ultimately Ramo positions that tapping hammer of constant
connectivity as a constructive force, one that can make our most vital
institutions more productive, more responsive, more resilient. In his
estimation, we're at a turning point as significant as that of the Age of
Enlightenment, when the Scientific Revolution ushered us out of the Dark Ages
and into a new era increasing trade and prosperity, longer lifespans, and
greater individual autonomy.
So how do we steer toward the best possible outcomes in our own moment of
major and often chaotic transformation?
The first step is to develop what Ramo dubs the seventh sense –
an "ability to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed
In the Networked Age, thousands of spare bedrooms becomes the building
blocks of a new hospitality marketplace. Drivers seeking route-finding
information become sensors who collectively reveal local traffic
And as I've written in the past, when exploring the idea of network
literacy, individual and organizational identity changes too.
Networks make identity multivariate, distributed, and in part, defined by
outside forces. In the Networked Age, you're never just "you"
anymore. You're who you know and what they know about you; who they know; in
what contexts they know you.
The power of connected systems, Ramo notes, derives from "the
number, the type, and the speed of the relationships they establish and then
That's true of the individuals and organizations enmeshed within
networks as well as the overall networks themselves. Today, individuals and
organizations who possess the greatest network literacy will always be the
first to learn about and adapt to changing conditions, new threats, and new
opportunities. Without a well-developed seventh sense, you falter. With it, you
possess the adaptability and resilience that individuals, companies, and even
countries need now to prosper in a complex, fast-changing world.
Ramo isn't just interested in diagnosing how network power works. The
ultimate goal of The Seventh Sense is to plot a path forward, to
suggest how we can best utilize all the new connected systems where so much of
our lives play out now – especially as these systems become even more essential
to trade, finance, education, health, and overall economic and national
security. Ramo views the challenge through the lens of a statesman: His counsel
arises from a desire to ensure that this next generation of networks are
informed by "American values of democratic choice, freedom of thought, and
Ramo's vision rests on a strategic approach toward network development
that he calls "Hard Gatekeeping." America's networks, he suggests,
must be developed and controlled with more emphasis on security. And while Ramo
strategizes at a high level, it's clear he means the United States government
should take a more proactive role in developing and controlling what he calls
"gatelands," the networks where we will conduct much of our lives.
"Completely open technology standards can be hijacked too
easily," he writes. Thus, he envisions a world in which America no longer
permits "any nation to plug into the country's markets or technologies or
Presumably, stronger forms of identity will be one feature of this new
system. Another that Ramo suggests is a national "BitDollar" – i.e. a
digital currency backed by the U.S.
Greater transparency and trust would potentially make these new gatelands
more desirable venues for trade and finance, and thus they'd also function as
powerful tools of diplomacy. Other countries that wanted to plug into America's
systems would have to play by America's rules. Ramo offers an example: If a
nation wanted access to America's trading platforms or cybersecurity databases,
it would have to forgo any nuclear research.
Other countries, Ramo notes, would have gatelands of their own. And he
emphasizes that America should not "force anyone else into its gated
systems." Another possibility, of course, is that networks characterized
by an even greater degree of openness than today's will emerge as a hedge
against the reduced opportunities for anonymity, pseudonymity, and unregulated
behavior in the gatelands that Ramo envisions.
But if Ramo presents tomorrow's gatelands as an opt-in phenomenon that
users choose voluntarily because they offers more security and better overall
experiences, he also recognizes that any gatelands that achieve critical mass
will exert an increasingly significant cost on anyone who opts out. That is
precisely what gives them their leverage, both internationally and
domestically. "Many future gatelands will express their power as much by
cutting nations or people out as by counting them in," he concludes.
"Imagine if you were not allowed to transact in the new Bitdollars."
The Internet and the networks it has enabled grew as fast as they did,
and are as popular as they are, because they've largely been characterized by
innovation and permissionless use.
Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and other members of the PayPal team, including
myself, didn't need to obtain any web-specific licenses when we starting
offering online money transfer services in 1999. Satoshi Nakamato launched a new currency into the world without
any government's prior approval. And while the regulatory status of
trailblazing startups like Uber and Airbnb continues to evolve, they were able
to introduce services that created massive value for both consumers and
individuals seeking new sources of income, without having to obtain prior
approval from any network gatekeepers.
But while it's hard to imagine that the web would have grown as fast as
it did in the 1990s as a result of its fundamentally open nature, it's also
true that many of today's most popular networks and platforms require user
registration and other even more exacting forms of identification. So at this
point it may be that users and entrepreneurs would flock to the more secure and
transparent networks that would exist in the gatelands that Ramo envisions.
Ultimately, what The Seventh Sense makes so clear is that in
2016, 25 years after the birth of the World Wide Web, we're still in the
formative stages of the Networked Age. And what makes the book so useful is the
way that Ramo homes in on the crucial question of our age: How do we
want the networks and platforms that grow more and more essential to our lives
Ramo describes the power of networks with a statesman's feel for history
and sense of the moment, and that's precisely what we need right now. Networks
are reshaping the world, and the questions and debates about who gets to
control them and how we should design them for maximum benefit to all are only
just beginning. To participate most productively in this moment, you need the
Seventh Sense – both the book itself and the understanding and facility for the
Networked Age it will help you develop.
As Joshua Cooper Ramo suggests in his important new book, The Seventh Sense, massively scaled, always-on connection changes the nature of objects and institutions. A heart-rate monitor that shares information with a million other heart-rate monitors functions differently than one that operates in standalone fashion.